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Durban's Bunny Chow © hammersmithandfulham/flikr
Durban's Bunny Chow © hammersmithandfulham/flikr

A Brief History of Bunny Chow

Picture of Shubnum Khan
Updated: 12 July 2017
The history of Durban‘s bunny chow is shrouded in mystery. This hollowed-out loaf of white bread is filled with a selection of different curries and beans, and has been a local delicacy since the 1940s – but no one is quite sure who created it. Let’s take a closer look at the story of this unique South African dish.

Often served with grated carrot, chilli and onion salad, the bunny chow is a meal that certainly has its own distinctive look. And it also demands to be eaten in a particular way. It’s expected to be eaten with the hands, with the idea being to start from the ‘virgin’ scooped-out bread at the top and to end at the gravy-soaked bottom.

But how did the bunny chow come to be? Well, one thing that’s known for sure is that it was created during apartheid for the indentured Indian labourers, who were brought to work in Natal’s sugarcane fields. The word ‘bunny’ comes from ‘bania’, the caste of the Indian businessmen who sold the curry, while ‘chow’ is, of course, slang for ‘food’.

One story goes that because the law during apartheid forbade black people from entering restaurants and cafes, they took to ordering take-out meals from the sides or backdoors of restaurants.

The most popular dish at the times was roti and beans. But the roti (a thin wheat naan) fell apart, so creative proprietors began using loaves of bread as take-out containers, scooping them out and filling them with the bean curry. The bread, while not as ideal as roti, became an accepted accompaniment to eat the curry with.

Whatever you do, don't eat a bunny chow with utensils | © Gourmandise / Flikr

Whatever you do, don’t eat a bunny chow with utensils | © Gourmandise / Flikr

Another theory is that it was invented for the Indian caddies at the Royal Durban Golf Course. The caddies were unable to get off from work long enough to eat their lunch in Grey Street, the Indian area in Durban’s central business district. So, eventually, they began to get their friends to buy the curry for them in the city. With no access to take-out containers, the friends brought the curry in hollowed-out loaves of bread. Thus the bunny chow was born.

Another story claims that it was created by a chef at the Queen’s Tavern and yet another says it was created at a restaurant called Kapitans on the corner of Victoria and Albert Street in Durban.

Whatever the real story, there’s no denying that the bunny chow has become a delicious Durban icon.